The New Statesman Profile - Mo Mowlam

The Oprah Winfrey of Ulster, huggy-kissy Mo has won over the nationalists - but can she keep the pea

Last year marked the apotheosis of the most remarkable member of the new Labour cabinet. Dr Marjorie Mowlam became the most popular politician in the country. She has won a number of awards, including recently "Most Effective Member of Parliament" (Channel 4-The House magazine); and is the only politician, besides Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, to whom both US news magazines have devoted full-length profiles. It is now rumoured she is to be moved from her post as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to a Top Job; in one of the many flattering portraits of her, it was even suggested that, if Blair were to go, she could challenge Gordon Brown for the succession. Earlier this week the Independent carried a confident story that she would replace another insistently styled PhD, Dr Jack Cunningham, as Cabinet Office Minister, or "Enforcer". Except that in Mowlam's case, it would be "Persuader".

The many interviews she has given over the past months repeatedly highlight certain features: her courage in facing the news of a brain tumour shortly before the election; her stoicism in submitting to chemotherapy which resulted in complete hair loss and weight gain; her humour in living with these effects, especially in her former habit (her hair has now grown back) of pulling off the wig and revealing her bald skull; her profanity in using variants of the words "fuck" and "wank"; and the extraordinary tactility and empathy in her hugging, kissing, crying, emphasising continually her own and others' pain and grieving.

In my own experience of her, these are indeed salient features; the more remarkable when contrasted - as they usually are - with the "patrician" qualities of her Tory predecessor, Sir Patrick (now Lord) Mayhew. She is, instinctively or knowingly or both, able to project into the public sphere a version of herself that is "earthy", a constant challenge to the other's inhibitions or courtesy, especially if the other is a man. The effect of seeing a woman who had been compared to the actress Liv Ullmann pulling off her wig and scratching her bald head is fundamentally disconcerting to most men; it is hard to believe it is not done in order to disarm as well as to help her cope with the psychological strain.

Mowlam, 49, is hailed as a secular saint because she is seen to have succeeded in bringing peace to Northern Ireland in her term of office. The Good Friday Agreement, the anniversary of which comes in two months' time, has resulted in ceasefires by the bulk of republican and loyalist terrorist groups - in particular the main one of these, the Provisional IRA. There has been a remarkable rapprochement with the Irish Republic, most poignantly symbolised by the Irish president and the British queen together honouring Irish and British dead in the first world war. Above all, no bombs have exploded on the British mainland in that time. Mowlam is credited with bringing peace where it counts.

Her opponents are where you would expect them - in the right-wing media, especially the Telegraph newspapers, which support that significant section of unionist politics that opposes the Agreement. The press director she fired, Andy Wood, wrote a bitter piece about her in the Sunday Times - but he suffered from the "he would, wouldn't he" response. On the whole, though, the consensus that she is marvellous is all but absolute.

This consensus betrays our contemporary predilection for the emotional over the rational - a style of which she is, more than any other practitioner in Britain today, the mistress. So powerful is the urge to find in politicians a "humanity" which is held to be more genuine than the adherence to a line or the keeping of an official distance, that Mowlam has achieved what for contemporary politicians, surrounded by vulpine media, is the Valhalla of sitting above the fray.

It is this success that Downing Street may reward with a job that gives even more prominence to her "people" and "imaging" skills - the indispensable qualities for the modern politician.

In the avalanche of plaudits, though, it has passed largely unnoticed that Blair and his staff handled both the policy and the critical areas of negotiation.

In keeping the media on her side, Mowlam has, outside of Northern Ireland and the Republic, managed to suppress until now the vast ambivalence of the government's position in the Agreement, and the sickening gulf that is opening up between pledges and delivery on the part of the IRA.

The declaration in 1993 by John Major and Albert Reynolds - then British and Irish premiers - that a new era was opening in the effort to bring peace to Northern Ireland meant that policy became centralised in the hands of the Prime Minister's office. Major was absorbed by Northern Ireland and believed he had found the formula for solving it. In that belief he has yet to be proved wrong; it was his strategy - of engaging actively with the Republic while quietly encouraging John Hume (the leader of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party) to persuade Sinn Fein to join talks on Northern Ireland's future - that new Labour has followed. It resulted in the Good Friday Agreement.

Major's Northern Irish secretaries were sometimes faced with faits accomplis brokered by Downing Street with the unionists, the SDLP, or even Sinn Fein; like a good front office, they then had to represent it as a wise and long-debated act of government policy. Both Peter Brooke and Mayhew knew the detail well. Mowlam self-confessedly does not. She leaves it to her civil servants; her speciality has been meeting and wooing people, keeping talks going through a mixture of charm, bluntness (she is said to have told Ian Paisley to "fuck off", though whether or not it was done in jest is not known) and soothing.

The last stages of the Good Friday negotiations were handled by Blair and his staff, especially by Jonathan Powell; she kept a very low profile during the subsequent referendum, which saw a big nationalist "yes" but a very grudging unionist one. Blair did the high-profile campaigning while Powell handled the behind-the-scenes dramas and crises.

Mowlam's most important role is as persuader and cajoler of the nationalists. In opposition, Mowlam was a shadow Northern Ireland minister in the team led by Kevin McNamara, the leading Irish nationalist figure in the Labour Party. He strongly believed that his job was to find ways to persuade the unionists to accept the inevitability of a united Ireland. Though Mowlam did not echo McNamara's nationalism, her association taints her in unionist eyes, and they suspect her of being a United Irishwoman yet.

David Trimble, stiff and personally shy, is repelled by her public style. Yet Mowlam, being the friendly chew-the-fat, open-door secretary of state, has shown nationalists and republicans a different style of British politician - a huggy-kissy figure who treats them as if they all were on a TV personal-revelation show, a kind of Oprah Winfrey of Ulster.

This division of labour between Prime Minister and Northern Irish Secretary has been and is effective: it got the Good Friday Agreement, it has kept the peace (on the mainland). The price has been the moral high ground. Because she is not in charge of, but must represent, policy, the hazard is not of Mowlam's creation; cabinet ministers must take responsibility, however, for what happens above their heads in Downing Street as well as below their feet in their departments. Yet she increases the hazard precisely by being the kind of politician she is. Early in her office, she promised members of the republican-led Garvaghy Road residents' committee that she would personally inform them of the result of government deliberations on permitting an Orange Order march past their estate. When it was decided that the march would go ahead, she did not tell them. In January last year, after the murder of the loyalist terrorist Billy Wright in the Maze prison, she went into the cells to plead with other loyalist murderers to keep the ceasefire going. After the Omagh bomb which killed 28, she lavishly praised Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein leader, for his condemnation of the republican group that planted the bomb - though it was not and is not clear how much IRA involvement there was in setting up the outrage.

Throughout the past months, as punishment beatings and murders have risen in both loyalist- and republican-controlled areas, and as the IRA refuses again and again to decommission, she has insisted that the peace process continues and that Sinn Fein must remain in the Assembly. Indeed, it has been an Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, who gave the lead in saying that the IRA should begin to decommission before Sinn Fein can take the two ministerial seats in a Northern Irish cabinet to which its vote entitles it; Mowlam has never been so definite.

In a few weeks, Mowlam will have to decide whether the Assembly cabinet should be constituted with Sinn Fein ministers. The signs, so far, are that she will face the decision without a start having been made to decommissioning. The signs also are that the seven-man IRA Army Council will not concede anything on decommissioning - whether or not Adams and Martin McGuinness are arguing for it (as the government believes, it seems, that they are). Once again, the decision will not be hers, but she will have to live - if she stays as Northern Ireland Secretary - with the consequences. The British government remains desperate to keep the terrorists in the peace process. The consequence is deliberately to blur how far the terrorists - especially the IRA, which poses a fundamental challenge to the state in a way that the loyalists do not - are prepared to stop being terrorists.

This is the critical question in Ulster politics, and it has not been answered. Implicitly, Mowlam's case is that we should not press them for an answer because to do so would be to wreck the progress of the Agreement. But in keeping the question open, Mowlam releases the terrorist organisations from the hard choice, and allows them, with no sacrifices, to perpetuate an ambiguity which at any time could revert to war.

We will not know how far this deliberate withholding of judgement - legal as well as moral - is an act of supreme long-term statesmanship in which she has played an important part, or a great mistake that may sink the very process it was meant to underpin. But a Woman of the Year should give an answer before she leaves office.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think